Reprinted with permission from F. Lee Graves, Author
Henry Plummer...the man is certainly an enigma of the Old West. Some historians assert that Henry Plummer was an alias for a man whose real name has been lost in the mists of time. However, Art Pauley wrote a very well-researched book on Henry Plummer that traces his origins to a farm near Houlton, Maine as the son of Rial and Roseanna Plummer. Rial and family, along with Henry's brother Ed, relocated in Sauk County, Wisconsin.
In 1852, Amos Henry Plummer is traced to Nevada City, California, where he ultimately entered the bakery business and local law enforcement as city marshal. Five years later, he got into a shooting scrape over a woman, and was charged in the death of her husband, John Vedder. The jury rendered a verdict of murder in the second degree.
A second trial was granted, with the venue changed to Yuba City, California. Again came a guilty verdict, and Henry was sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin.
Plummer began serving his sentence on February 22, 1859 as inmate number 1573. Among his comrades behind bars was Cyrus Skinner, serving time for grand larceny.
Plummer served time only until August 16, 1859, when he was released because of a supposedly fatal illness. Plummer returned to Nevada City, California, where a friend appointed him city constable. But he was "unappointed" after his friend lost the next election.
Plummer remained out of trouble until February of 1861 when he nearly killed a man in a fight. Then on the following October 27, Plummer got into a shooting match at a local house of ill fame and killed one William Riley. Plummer was incarcerated, but escaped only five days later by literally running out the door. He hid with friends in Carson City, and finally went to Lewiston, Idaho where he and a woman companion registered at the Luna House in January 1862.
In Lewiston Plummer ran into his old cellmate, Cyrus Skinner, and other individuals destined for the gallows in Montana, such as Club Foot George Lane and Bill Bunton. Plummer abandoned his mistress, a woman with three children who had to resort to prostitution to feed herself and family, and finally died an alcoholic and "an inmate in one of the lowest dives in town." Roaming the area between Elk City, Florence and Lewiston, Plummer became a wanted man again, this time for the death of Patrick Ford.
This time the outlaw ended up at Sun River, Montana in November 1862, where he met his future wife, Electa Bryan, who was staying with her sister and brother-in-law, Martha and James Vail. Also at Sun River, he became reacquainted with Jack Cleveland, a fellow just as unscrupulous as Plummer.
Plummer ended up in Bannack, where he was appointed sheriff. Henry and Electa were married in Sun River on June 20, 1863 by Jesuit priest Fr. Joseph Menetry in St. Peter's Mission. The newlyweds arrived in Bannack four days later to make their home, but in less than three months, Electa left for Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where her parents lived. Her reason for leaving never will be known. Theories purport that she finally got to know Henry Plummer and left because she disapproved of his violent nature and life of crime, or even that she left Bannack with the expectation that Henry Plummer would join her in the spring.
Electa ultimately moved to Vermillion, South Dakota, where she married James Maxwell, a widower with two daughters. Electa and James had two sons of their own, Vernon and Clarence. Electa lived until May 5, 1912. She was buried at Wakonda, South Dakota.
Each man brought with him beliefs and ethical values that largely dictated his actions and relations with his fellow man. With the good men inevitably came the bad, who leeched from one gold camp to another, robbing and murdering or otherwise plying their personal skills in a selfish and nonproductive way. Men such as Henry Plummer, Buck Stinson, Ned Ray, Cyrus Skinner, Boone Helm, Long John Franck, Bill Bunton and George Ives were quick to move into a virgin gold camp where their true natures were not known. In Bannack, an organization of toughs quickly developed, known as the Road Agents or Innocents (by their password "I am Innocent"). The Road Agents soon had moles, or snitches, in many businesses in the new gold camps of southwestern Montana. They got word of a gold shipment or a stagecoach passenger carrying large sums of money, and promptly relayed the information to gang leaders.
Such wealth seldom reached its destination.
The ringleader of the gang, Henry Plummer, wasted no time in getting himself elected sheriff, in May of 1863. Plummer was even quicker about appointing two of his henchmen, Buck Stinson and Ned Ray, as deputies. Plummer and his group infiltrated every decent group and endeavor in the mining camps--except the Masons. The Road Agents had watched the Masons with suspicious silence ever since the group of 76 brothers met at William Bell's funeral in November of 1862. It has been reported that Plummer once inquired about Masonic membership. If so, he was quickly discouraged because rumors already had spread about his life of dubious distinction prior to coming to Bannack. Plummer soon became not very well trusted, even if he was the sheriff. So far, no Road Agent has been found to have held Masonic membership.
That the Road Agents had a grip on the area in 1863, few informed persons would have disputed. It was not safe to walk down the main streets of Bannack and Virginia City after dark, and even sometimes in broad daylight. Travel was unsafe because robbery of both stagecoaches and horseback riders was common.
Only three miles north of Bannack on the Bannack-Virginia City Road is a promontory appropriately named Road Agents' Rock. So many robberies took place at that site, that many a stage driver breathed a sigh of relief if he passed the point without getting held up.
The vast majority of people in the camps were hardworking, good people who grew increasingly weary at the growing violence and almost open disdain for law and order. George Ives' robbery and brutal murder of the Dutchman, Nicholas Tiebalt, in December of 1863 near Nevada City appeared to be the straw that broke the camel's back. Ives had killed young Tiebalt for $200 in gold dust and a span of fine mules, and had hidden the mules at a friend's ranch on the Big Hole River. Tiebalt's body soon was discovered, and the trail led to George Ives. The people of Alder Gulch were outraged at the senseless and brutal killing of such a well liked young man and demanded justice. Ives was tried by a miner's court in Nevada City, the prosecutor being Bannack resident Colonel Wilbur Fisk Sanders, who happened to be in Virginia City on business. Adjudged guilty, George Ives was hanged by the neck until dead on December 21,1863. (The spot of this first Vigilante action is marked today in Nevada City.) Quickly the Vigilantes organized--with a president, treasurer and secretary, and companies headed by captains--and wasted no time in furthering the cause of justice in area communities.
After the Ives execution, the Vigilantes began to investigate further the organization of outlaws they knew to exist. A scouting party of 28 men, called the Deer Lodge Scout, left Virginia City for Deer Lodge for the express purpose of apprehending the comrades of George Ives.
The moon was nearing full, which gave them light to travel at night. The leader of the expedition was Captain James Williams. On the way to Deer Lodge, the party met Red Yeager, unbeknownst to them a member of Plummer's gang.
Yeager had just carried a letter from George Brown, corresponding secretary of Plummer's band, to the Road Agents in Deer Lodge, warning them of the Vigilantes' work by the message, "Get up and dust, and lie low for black ducks." When the Scout arrived at Deer Lodge, they found that the Road Agents had just been warned and had fled. Williams and his weary party decided that they must capture the messenger. They captured Red Yeager in a wickiup a few hundred yards up Rattlesnake Creek from the Rattlesnake Stage Station, and returned to Dempsey's Stage Station, where he was questioned along with George Brown. Finally the Road Agent pair was taken to Lorraine's Ranch at present-day Laurin. The Vigilantes decided not to take Brown and Yeager to Virginia City, since there was the possibility that the two would be liberated by their friends. At 10 P.M. On January 4, 1864, the two Road Agents were awakened and told they were to be hanged. Brown begged for his life, but Yeager was much more composed, as if resigned to his fate all along.
Red Yeager proceeded to name Henry Plummer as chief of the band, Bill Bunton as a stool pigeon and second in command, Cyrus Skinner as fence, spy and roadster. Among others listed were George Ives and two of Plummer's deputies: Ned Ray as council-room keeper at Bannack, and Buck Stinson, roadster. Red Yeager and George Brown were escorted to the banks of the Passamari (now Ruby) River, where they were hanged from two cottonwood trees. Brown's last recorded words were, "God Almighty, save my soul. Yeager was a little more poetic; after he shook hands with his executioners he stated, "Good-bye boys; God bless you. You are on a good undertaking." (Incidentally, Passamari is a Shoshone word for "stinking water.")
Stories circulated at Bannack about the hangings of Ives, Brown and Yeager. Plummer and his men became nervous, wondering what the Vigilantes knew and what they were going to do about it. Things were "getting hot" for the Road Agents, and many made plans to leave the country. The Vigilantes anticipated such plans, and decided to act quickly. The Alder Gulch Vigilante leaders had met and decided to enlist the aid of the Bannack Vigilantes and hang Plummer, Stinson and Ray. Late in the evening of January 9, 1864, John S. Lott, Harry King and two other Vigilantes from Alder Gulch arrived at Bannack with news from the Virginia City company and their request for cooperation. Undoubtedly, Wilbur Fisk Sanders was one of the first they contacted. The execution of Henry Plummer, Ned Ray and Buck Stinson was ordered for the next day. During the afternoon of the l0th of January, Road Agents brought three horses into Bannack. The Vigilantes believed Plummer and his deputies planned an escape, so they finalized execution plans.
Immediately before dark, Plummer was making his rounds through town and was returning to Yankee Flat, where he lived with his in-laws, James and Martha Vail, in a cabin next door to the Sanders family. To cross Grasshopper Creek from Bannack to Yankee Flat, one had to cross a footbridge. As Plummer approached the bridge, he met Mrs. Sanders crossing into town. Plummer, the account states, tipped his hat and politely spoke, neither party realizing that at that very moment, Mrs. Sander's husband was planning Plummer's capture and execution for within the hour.
The evening was crisp and clear, with no moon to illuminate a landscape well below zero. The Vigilantes organized into three small companies, each going about its deliberate task of capturing one man before meeting the others near the gallows. The gallows was located about a hundred yards up Hangman's Gulch on Bannack's north side, and had been constructed by Sheriff Plummer himself not a year before, to hang a horse thief named Horan.
One company of Vigilantes, led by William Roe, arrested Buck Stinson at Toland's cabin on Yankee Flat, where he was spending the evening. Ned Ray was captured by Frank Sears and Harry King as he lay passed out on a gambling table at a Yankee Flat saloon.
Henry Plummer was at the Vails' cabin. Martha Vail, his sister-in-law, answered the knock at the door, greeting several Vigilantes led by John S. Lott. Plummer was asked to accompany them, which he did amidst Mrs. Vail's questions. Plummer told her that they just wanted to talk to him about Dutch John Wagner, and left with the group of determined men. The three companies met at the gallows. The night was extremely cold, and the men had a very unsavory job to do, so they did not waste any time. Ned Ray was the first hanged, followed by Buck Stinson--both men spewing epithets every step of the way. Plummer was not the big tough leader he pretended to be. He begged for his life, then changed his tactics and stated that he was too wicked to die. Finally he resigned himself to the fate of joining his cohorts on the gallows in death. After tossing the kerchief from around his neck to a young friend, he requested the Vigilantes to give him a good drop. His request was granted, and he was lifted as high as several men could, and dropped into eternity. The 27-yearold outlaw sheriff's dark career and life were over.
A guard was placed to keep people away from the swinging corpses. After about an hour, the guard left, satisfied that the last breath of life had left the three outlaws. Their bodies were taken down the next day. However, burial in Boot Hill, located just above the gallows at the top of the hill, would be unheard of since the townspeople did not want such vile men lying in perpetual slumber with their loved ones. Shallow graves were dug not far from where the men had spent the last moments of their lives.
The Vigilantes went on to hang the rest of the Road Agents that they could locate, in such locations as Hellgate (Missoula), Cottonwood (Deer Lodge), Fort Owen and Virginia City. The accounts state that all told, 32 men were either hanged or banished, with only three receiving that second chance. One hundred and two documented murders by the Road Agents had taken place, along with an unknown number of robberies.
Reports abound about the fabulous loot that Plummer and his gang amassed, giving rise to the legend of Henry Plummer's treasure. The other side of the story, probably more realistic, is that the Road Agents spent the loot as fast as they could get it on whisky, gambling and women of dubious character.
The Vigilantes were spurred on by their success and general public approval. They decided to seek other law breakers and deal with them as they saw fit until a competent judiciary should be established.
The exact locations of the gallows and grave of Henry Plummer are mysteries, as well as what happened exactly to his skeleton.
After the outlaw sheriff was hanged with two of his cohorts on January 10, 1864, the bodies were taken to an unfinished building on Main Street across from the Goodrich Hotel (adjacent to and just east of Skinner's Saloon), where they lay for a day. One account states that Madame Hall, Ned Ray's mistress, took his body to her cabin and arranged for the burial herself. Plummet and Stinson were laid out on a bench and the floor, respectively. On the next evening, in the same unfinished building, Dutch John Wagner was hanged by Vigilantes from a crossbeam, and his body placed with those of the other Road Agents.
On the 13th of January, the four bodies Coy that time Madame Hall had returned the body of Ned Ray, if she ever had claimed it) were taken and buried in a common grave just to the right of where the gallows replica stands up Hangman's Gulch. Only Plummer had the luxury of being buried in a coffin. (One account states that Stinson and Ray were buried in Boot Hill on the hill east of the gallows.)
The grave of the four Road Agents had not been very deep, for the ground was frozen hard, and no one wanted to work very hard to bury the outlaws. Hangman's Gulch, where the burial took place, is often disturbed by flash floods that rearrange the landscape and its contents. Undoubtedly some of what was buried in the Road Agents' grave washed away in the numerous floods that have rampaged down the gulch.
Local legend tells two tales about the fate of Henry Plummer's skull. The first, and most probable, says that two drunks, about the turn of the century, dug up Plummer's skull and deposited it on the backbar of Bannack's Bank Exchange Saloon. There the curious relic reposed until the saloon burned and, with it, all its contents. The second story is undoubtedly just that, a story, but is nevertheless fascinating. This account relates that the same old drunks dug up the skull, which finally found its way into the hands of a Bannack doctor. The unnamed doctor sent the specimen "back east to a scientific institution for study to try to figure out why Plummer was so evil."
The Vigilantes' work was swift and sure, and ended as quickly as it began. They were men who were honest and hardworking, and who realized that in order for the Territory to be a safe place in which to live and to raise a family, law and order had to be instilled in the gold camps. Needless to say, the calming effect of the Vigilantes on southwestern Montana was felt for many years to come.
Copyright by F. Lee Graves
Author of Bannack, Cradle of Montana
All Rights Reserved